History of Death and Disease in the Islamicate World

Our working group, previously titled “History of Infectious Disease in the Islamicate World (HIDIW),” was originally conceived in 2020 in the context of the unfolding COVID-19 pandemic with a view to making an “emergency intervention” to jump start the developing field of epidemiological history by bringing together various experts working in the fields of history of medicine and medieval Islamic studies, and preparing a cluster of working translations of key texts relating to the experience of infectious disease history in the Middle East and North Africa. With this in mind, we hosted our regular monthly meetings, which took place from February 2021 to June 2023. During this time, we hosted a total of 22 meetings (with 24 different presenters) where speakers introduced new primary sources and presented their ongoing research projects.
Where we stand today, that immediate goal for an “emergency intervention” in the context of the pandemic is no longer directly relevant. After taking a hiatus year, our newly revamped working group, now titled “History of Death and Disease in the Islamicate World (HIDDIW),” thus expands its focus to include a broader array of topics. In its new configuration, the working group will serve as a platform for multidisciplinary discussions on the history of death, disease, public health, and healing in the Islamicate World by a host of speakers from disciplines in the humanities, social sciences, and paleosciences.

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Upcoming Meetings

There are no currently scheduled upcoming events.

Past Meetings

  • November 7, 2023


  • October 3, 2023


  • September 5, 2023


  • June 6, 2023

    Bulgarian and Ottoman-Turkish medical manuscripts and sources in comparison: insights on how people dealt with epidemics in the XVII-XVIII century (Yana Georgakieva)
    The Ottoman Turkish manuscripts are among the most widespread written sources in the Bulgarian lands. Unfortunately, still a significant amount of those historical documents remains uncatalogued and therefore has never been the object of detailed study. My presentation will focus on medical manuscripts currently preserved at the Oriental Department of St.St. Cyril and Methodius National Library – Sofia, Republic of Bulgaria. I will try to shed light on the correlation between the remedies in Bulgarian pharmacopoeias and those preserved in the Ottoman Turkish ones. Additionally, I will provide an overview of the archaeological situation in Bulgaria, which, at this stage of my research, seems to correspond to some of the sources. The cyclic epidemics within the Bulgarian lands have left intriguing scenes in certain churches and monasteries, and even specific features in Ottoman architecture, which I will discuss as well.

  • May 2, 2023


  • April 4, 2023

    Discussions on smallpox and smallpox vaccination according to Şanizade - Yasemin Akçagüner (Columbia University, New York)
    The story of how the popular medical practice of variolation in the Ottoman Empire, championed chiefly by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, became part of learned medicine in the early eighteenth century in England is well known. Lesser known is the story of how vaccination made its way (back) to the Ottoman Empire. Building on recent studies showing the multidirectional exchange and circulation of scientific and medical knowledge, this chapter presents the first synthetic account of the arrival of the vaccine in Istanbul in 1800, through the lens of the Ottoman physician and court historian Şanizade Ataullah Efendi (d. 1826). Şanizade narrated the history of the vaccine’s arrival and relayed the European scholarly debate on the merits of the vaccine to an Ottoman scholarly readership in his 1820 publication The Mettle of Physicians (Miʿyarü’l-Eṭıbbā.) Taking part in this debate, Şanizade argued for the adoption of this new prophylaxis, but only if it was to be administered by qualified physicians who had proven their mettle thorough extensive book learning as well as excellence in surgical practice. With the vaccine’s arrival in Istanbul at the turn of the century, immunization against smallpox became the issue through which Şanizade advocated for the further professionalization of medicine. 

  • March 7, 2023

    Merits of the Plague by Ibn Hajar Al-Asqalani: Reflections on a New Translation - Joel Blecher (George Washington University) and Mairaj Syed (University of California, Davis)
    In this session, Joel Blecher and Mairaj Syed will discuss their forthcoming translation of Ibn Hajar's plague treatise "Merits of the Plague" (Penguin, March 2023).  They will not only share their experience of the process of translation but also discuss possible venues of scholarly research based on the translation. 

  • February 7, 2023

    Cholera, the Hijaz Railroad: A Reversed Reasoning? - Benan Grams (Georgetown University, Washington DC.)
    Nineteenth century’s contemporaries and later historians agree that ships and trains, modernized transportation technologies powered by the steam engine, facilitated the rapid spread of cholera, an infectious disease that was endemic to the Ganges Valley in India, to the rest of the world. Therefore, it was not surprising that when the Ottoman government announced its Hijaz railroad project, Western press expressed concerns, anticipating another route for cholera to spread after the Hajj pilgrimage from Hijaz to the Levant and the regions connected to it commercially. 
     This article explores the possibility of taking a different approach to the relationship between cholera and modern projects of transportation. Europeans’ control over key quarantine locations in the Mediterranean and the perceived humiliation Ottoman Muslims endured may have created popular support for the idea of the Hijaz railroad a decade before the actual initiation of the project. Such an approach would provide an additional lens to examine the Hijaz railroad project that is different from the conventional geo-political standpoint that has focused on the project’s ideological discourse and the political significance.

  • January 3, 2023

    Muteferriqa: Expanding Frontiers in Ottoman and Turkish Studies and Interdisciplinary Collaboration in Historical Research - C. Ozan Ceyhan (Miletos Inc.)
    "Muteferriqa is an online research portal that contains an exceptionally rich collection of printed materials published in the Ottoman Empire, including mainly books and periodicals printed from the 18th to mid-20th century. It provides much more than a typical primary sources database through its enhanced search features, and its functionalities enabling discovery in both textual and visual content of the source materials. Muteferriqa overcomes language barriers in research and paves the way for cross-domain research collaborations by letting its users to search and read both in Turkish and in English in addition to Ottoman Turkish. In this presentation, I aim to demonstrate Muteferriqa and discuss the opportunities to expand frontiers for studies in the history of infectious disease."

  • December 6, 2022

    A Metaphor for Contagion in Qusṭā ibn Lūqā’s Book on Contagion - Shahrzad Irannejad (GRK 1876, JGU Mainz)

    The concept of contagion is a highly contested one in the medical tradition of the Islamicate world. Although several diseases are sporadically deemed as contagious within some medical encyclopediae, the very concept of contagion has rarely been discussed as a self-sufficient concept within the conventional, humoral paradigm. A significant exception, however, is the treatise On Contagion by Qusṭā ibn Lūqā. This Arabic treatise written by a 9th century Melkite Christian author is dedicated solely to the discussion of the concept of contagion.
    The point of departure of the present article is an “accurate” definition this treatise offers from the concept, using a metaphor. Using methods of textual scholarship, this article offers a close reading of the relevant passages from this short, but rich treatise, contextualizing it within two contexts: one Greek/humoral and another Arabo-Islamic. Drawing inspiration from conceptual metaphor theory, the article stresses the importance of the question why, despite the potential efficacy of the concept CONTAGION IS A SPARK presented in this treatise, this metaphor is not traceable in the works of the next generations of authors within the Islamicate tradition.
    This paper is based partially on the project “Bodies of Knowledge Facing Epidemics: (Islamicate) Humoral Medicine  vs. Prophetic Medicine” undertaken at Orient-Institut Istanbul, in which my overarching question throughout has been: "What strategies do individual actors (both historically and in contemporary Iran) develop to navigate the tension between empirical observation of the phenomenon of contagion and the resistance of their respective knowledge paradigms to the integration of the concept of contagion?"


Group Conveners

  • Tunahan.Durmaz's picture

    Tunahan Durmaz

    Tunahan Durmaz is a third-year Ph.D. researcher in the Department of History at the European University Institute, Florence. His research mainly focuses on Ottoman and European histories (15th to 18th centuries) with a special interest in social and cultural aspects of communicable diseases. Durmaz comes from a diverse background of humanities encompassing not only history but also history of art and architecture. He earned his BA (with honors) in History and Architecture (minor) in Middle East Technical University in June 2016, and his master’s degree in Sabancı University with a thesis titled “Family, Companions, and Death: Seyyid Hasan Nûrî Efendi’s Microcosm (1661-1665).”


  • HIDIW's picture

    Nukhet Varlik

    Nükhet Varlık is Associate Professor of History at Rutgers University–Newark. She is a historian of the Ottoman Empire interested in disease, medicine, and public health. She is the author of Plague and Empire in the Early Modern Mediterranean World: The Ottoman Experience, 1347–1600 (2015) and editor of Plague and Contagion in the Islamic Mediterranean (2017). Her new book project, “Empire, Ecology, and Plague: Rethinking the Second Pandemic (ca.1340s-ca.1940s),” examines the six-hundred-year Ottoman plague experiencein a global ecological context. In conjunction with this research, she is involved in developing the Black Death Digital Archive and contributing to multidisciplinary research projects that incorporate perspectives from palaeogenetics (ancient DNA research in particular), bioarchaeology, disease ecology, and climate science into historical inquiry.


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